Liza Jessie Peterson wants to alter your thinking about U.S. prisons, but her solo show, “The Peculiar Patriot” only briefly spins all the way up into fact-driven agitprop. Instead, her empathetic 90-minute show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is mostly acted out as a series of warmhearted visits by LaQuanda, our narrator, to an incarcerated friend. Despite the grim circumstances, Peterson’s tone is upbeat: It’s an understated protest play working hard to keep hope alive.
“The Peculiar Patriot” is filling the slot suddenly left open in Woolly’s spring schedule as Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” got picked up for Broadway, and Peterson’s show turns out to be, similarly, a personable angle on a topical problem. The title evokes the phrase “peculiar institution” — a genteel term for slavery — which flares when Peterson embodies one of LaQuanda’s boyfriends, an activist railing against private prisons. They are geared, he argues charismatically, to maximize profits by locking up minority populations in staggering numbers.
“Ain’t he something?” LaQuanda says glowingly after a long earful of his provocative data.
Though it raises its fist in resistance often enough, “The Peculiar Patriot” — directed with sleek style by Talvin Wilks — is largely a charm offensive. Sitting at a plain table and speaking directly to us (the audience is in the prisoner’s position), Peterson is dressed in an outfit of jeans, gold sneakers and Army surplus jacket designed by Latoya Murray-Berry. The upbeat LaQuanda Ross is a colorful talker, nicknamed Betsy for the historic overtones and because she is painstakingly sewing a quilt in solidarity with her friends and loved ones who are locked up.
So as LaQuanda chats, we fret for her friend’s newly jailed son and hear about another of LaQuanda’s love interests — one whose irresistible musculature, as she describes it, generates some of the often amusing show’s biggest laughs. The play unfolds slowly at times, especially early; Peterson can seem a little too glued to that chair during extended visits, and a little trapped in the conceit of playing one half of a dialogue.
It bristles with life, though, when Peterson pivots from the invitingly personal to the explicitly political. The facts barked by the activist boyfriend — played by Peterson with considerable command — have the outlines of an exposé attacking the ethics and profit motives of privately run prisons. (“Ka-clink, ka-ching,” goes the summary at the end of a diatribe.) Katherine Freer’s projections vividly illustrate everything from the routine of LaQuanda clearing security to her numbing travelogue of facilities in an ironically beautiful ode to Upstate New York.
Peterson does not pretend that some of the characters we see and hear about have not messed up, but she also does not pretend that all of them are guilty or that the sentences are always fair. She brings a good deal of research and experience to bear — the show has been performed at correctional facilities — and as she reaches a finish that’s more galvanizing than rabble-rousing, she sounds battle-tested. The voices and situations Peterson depicts are never less than convincing.
The Peculiar Patriot, written and performed by Liza Jessie Peterson. Directed by Talvin Wilks. Scenic and lighting designer, Andrew Cissna; composer and sound designer, Luqman Brown. About 90 minutes. Presented in association with National Black Theatre and Hi-Arts.Through April 20 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. $46-$75. 202-393-3939 or woollymammoth.net.